AARHUS, Denmark — It’s well established that steady, deep breaths promote stress relief and bring calm to an anxious brain. Now, research from Aarhus University is shedding further light on how the very act of breathing shapes our thoughts, emotions, attention, and how we process the world around us.
Study authors synthesized results from over a dozen studies involving brain imaging of humans, rodents, and monkeys. That data was then used to propose a new computational model explaining how our breathing influences the brain’s expectations.
“What we found is that, across many different types of tasks and animals, brain rhythms are closely tied to the rhythm of our breath. We are more sensitive to the outside world when we are breathing in, whereas the brain tunes out more when we breathe out. This also aligns with how some extreme sports use breathing, for example professional marksmen are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation,” says Professor Micah Allen in a statement..
All in all, researchers say their findings strongly suggest breathing is more than something we simply perform to stay alive and supply our lungs with air.
“It suggests that the brain and breathing are closely intertwined in a way that goes far beyond survival, to actually impact our emotions, our attention, and how we process the outside world. Our model suggests there is a common mechanism in the brain which links the rhythm of breathing to these events,” comments Allen.
A more comprehensive understanding of how breathing influences our brains, and by extension, our moods, thoughts, and behaviors, may help develop new ways to address and treat mental illness.
“Difficulty breathing is associated with a very large increase in the risk for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. We know that respiration, respiratory illness, and psychiatric disorders are closely linked. Our study raises the possibility that the next treatments for these disorders might be found in the development of new ways to realign the rhythms of the brain and body, rather than treating either in isolation,” Prof. Allen adds.
Breathing techniques spark brain activity
Calming the mind via various breathing techniques is a well established tactic across numerous traditions like yoga or meditation. Now, this latest research shows how the brain reacts to such strategies. The study also suggests there are three distinct pathways in the brain controlling the interaction between breathing and neural activity. Breathing patterns appear capable of “exciting” the mind, meaning neurons are more likely to fire during certain times of breathing.
These findings provide scientists a new target for future studies to focus on; people with respiratory or mood disorders. Prof. Allen and his team have already started working on new related projects. “We have a variety of ongoing projects that are both building on and testing various parts of the model we have proposed. PhD. Student Malthe Brændholt is conducting innovative brain imaging studies in humans, to try and understand how different kinds of emotional and visual perception are influenced by breathing in the brain,” Prof. Allen notes.
The research team is also collaborating with the Pulmonology team at Aarhus University Hospital, where they’ve developed tools in their lab used to understand whether people dealing with long-COVID may exhibit disruptions in their breath-brain alignment.
”We will be using a combination of human and animal neuro-imaging to better understand how breathing influences the brain, and also utilizing exploring how different drugs influence respiratory-brain interaction. We would also like to some day study how lifestyle factors like stress, sleep, and even things like winter swimming influence breath-brain interaction. We are very excited to continue this research,” Prof. Allen concludes.
The study is published in Psychological Review.